April 21, 2019

April 19, 2019

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

April 18, 2019

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

Illinois, Nebraska, and Nevada Join Others to Expand Personal Information Definition to Include Usernames or Email Addresses

Businesses should take steps to protect usernames, email addresses, passwords, and security questions and answers.

A key issue in determining whether notification is required following a data breach is whether “personal information” (PI) was acquired by an unauthorized person. US states vary significantly in defining what information qualifies as PI.[1] As part of a recent trend, some data breach notification statutes have been expanding the definition of PI, including by adding usernames and email addresses.

Trend to Add Usernames or Email Addresses

Illinois, Nebraska, and Nevada are the latest to add usernames or email addresses to the definition of PI when they are combined with information that would permit access to an online account.[2] The Illinois law took effect on January 1, 2017, while the respective laws in Nebraska and Nevada took effect in 2016.

Three other states (California, Florida, and Wyoming) had previously enacted laws mandating that either a username or email address constitutes PI when combined with a password or security question and answer that would permit access to an online account.[3] California first expanded the definition of PI to include usernames and email addresses in January 2014. Florida was next in July 2014, and Wyoming followed in July 2015. In most of these jurisdictions, the username or email address combined with the password or security question and answer provides an independent basis to establish PI—even if no first or last name (or other personally identifiable information) is disclosed.

Given the trend to broaden the scope of PI, private and government entities that collect usernames, email addresses, passwords, and security questions and answers should take steps to protect this information.

Other Diverging Standards

Private and government entities should also be aware that different jurisdictions apply varying standards to the collection of such information. For example, the Nevada, Rhode Island, and Wyoming definitions are narrower in that they require at least a last name and first initial to be disclosed in order for user data to qualify as PI, just as it is for social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and most other forms of PI. In other words, while releasing an unencrypted username and password would be considered to be PI in California, Florida, Illinois, and Nebraska even if the last name (and at least a first initial) of the individual associated with the username was not released, it would not qualify as PI in Nevada, Rhode Island, or Wyoming without that additional information.

Nevada’s and Rhode Island’s PI definitions are broader in other respects in terms of what constitutes user data. For example, Nevada and Rhode Island consider a username, email address, or a “unique identifier” to be PI when combined with a password, security question and answer, or an “access code” that would permit access to an online account.[4] The other states only list usernames and/or email addresses. The legislative history does not indicate what is considered to be a “unique identifier,” nor are any examples provided. Because this term is added to the “email address” and “username” list, it appears that the states consider this addition to be something more.

Nevada and Rhode Island also added “access code” as data that the username, email address, or unique identifier may be paired with to qualify as PI.[5] As with the terms “unique identifier,” the legislative history does not indicate what is considered to be an “access code,” nor are any examples provided, but we believe that the states must consider it to be something beyond a password.

These and other distinctions highlight how common data elements are treated differently among the data breach notification jurisdictions. Consequently, depending on the circumstances, data breach notification may be required in some jurisdictions but not others.

Based on the many variations under the state data breach laws, some have called for enactment of a uniform federal standard concerning data breach notification requirements.[6] Until uniform or common standards are adopted, private and government entities collecting PI will need to wade through the state-by-state standards to determine whether data breach notification is mandated under the given circumstances.


[1] For a listing of the data breach notification statutes, see National Conference of State Legislatures, Security Breach Notification Laws.

[2] See 815 Ill. Comp. Stat. §530/5; Neb. Rev. Stat. 27. §87-802(5)(b); Nev. Rev. Stat. §603A.040(e).

[3] See Cal. Civ. Code §1798.29 (g)(2); Fla. Stat. §501.171(1)(g)(1)(b); Wyo. Stat. §40-12-501; 10 L.P.R.A. §4051(a).

[4] See Nevada §603A.040 (1)(e).

[5] See id., see also R.I. Gen. Laws §11-49.3-3(8)(v).

[6] See, e.g., M. Krotoski, L. Wang, & J. Rosen, The Need to Repair the Complex, Cumbersome, Costly Data Breach Notification Maze, BNA’s Privacy & Security Law Report, 15 PVLR 271 (Feb. 8, 2016).

Copyright © 2019 by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. All Rights Reserved.

TRENDING LEGAL ANALYSIS


About this Author

Mark Krotoski, Litigation attorney, Morgan Lewis
Partner

Mark L. Krotoski represents and advises clients on antitrust cartel investigations; cybersecurity and privacy matters; trade secret, economic espionage, fraud, and foreign corrupt practices cases; and government investigations. With nearly 20 years of experience as a federal prosecutor and a leader in the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Mark provides clients with a unique blend of litigation and investigative experience. He has tried 20 cases to verdict and successfully argued appeals before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth and Sixth Circuits.

202.739.3001
W.Scott Tester, Morgan Lewis Law Firm, Intellectual Propert and Engineering Attorney
Associate

With an educational and professional background in electrical and computer engineering, litigator W. Scott Tester concentrates his practice on patent disputes involving the electrical and mechanical arts, as well as other related Intellectual Property (IP) matters. Prior to attending law school, Scott worked as a senior design engineer with a major telecommunications firm, where he specialized in telecommunications, network management, and security. He holds a BS degree in electrical and computer engineering from North Carolina State University.

650-843-7532